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Suddenly vulnerable Cubans face difficult transition

By Milton Jamail

The day after Cuba’s 4-0 defeat at the hands of Team USA in Sydney, the headline on the sports page of Gramma, the island’s official newspaper, read, "Is it the End of the World?"

The loss was a major disappointment for millions of Cuban fans who were still groggy from getting up at 4:30 a.m. to watch the game. And it was a devastating defeat for the Cuban team that had dominated the international amateur game for more than three decades.

Now the soul searching begins as to what went wrong.

Clearly the addition of professionals to the tournament removed one advantage the Cubans have had. Cuba could keep the same team of essentially pro players together year after year, while other powers such as Japan and the United States usually sent college players to international tournaments. Though teams in Cuba’s winter league used wood bats, its hitters haven’t fully made the adjustment from aluminum.

A more important reason for the decline of Cuban dominance is that the same system that consistently produces outstanding players doesn’t offer many opportunities for them to advance on the island. This leads Cuban authorities to rely on veterans to represent them each summer. Younger players often don’t improve or decide to defect.

Rey Ordonez and Jorge Toca, both now with the Mets, are examples of the latter option. So too are veteran pitchers Livan and Orlando Hernandez, who have success in the U.S. major leagues and almost certainly would have been on the Cuban national team had they not defected.

While first baseman Orestes Kindelan was a dominant hitter in the 1992 and 1996 Games, his slower bat speed was evident in Sydney. Clearly age has caught up with Cuba, and a gold medal in Sydney only would have papered over cracks in the system. Kindelan and older players such as second baseman Antonio Pacheco (relegated to DH in Sydney) and shortstop German Mesa will give way to younger players for the 2004 Athens Games.

Several of Cuba’s top young players, such as current batting champion Yorelvis Charles and infielder Michel Enriquez–both 21–did not make the Olympic team. Some speculated they were held back out of fear of defection, but Cuban baseball officials also lacked confidence they would perform under pressure.

The Cubans did send two of their best young players to Sydney: outfielder Yasser Gomez and righthander Maels Rodriguez, both 20. For Cuban sports officials, the end of their world would have been for Gomez and Rodriguez to have stayed behind in Sydney and signed multimillion-dollar contracts with major league organizations.

As Cuban baseball officials regroup to figure out how to best confront the world that has changed around them, fans throughout the island will be second-guessing those officials for years to come. Cuban fans questioned why their team’s two best pitchers, righthanders Jose Contreras and Norge Vera, didn’t face Team USA in the gold-medal game, or why lefthander Omar Ajete wasn’t brought in to face a pair of lefthanded hitters in the pivotal three-run fifth inning.

But even if the Cubans had started one of the Hernandezes, it wouldn’t have made much difference. This Cuban team didn’t hit. There were no great power outbursts or clutch performances from Kindelan or third baseman Omar Linares.

The Cubans had to scramble for runs in wins against Australia, Italy, Japan and Korea. They suffered an embarrassing 4-2 loss to the Netherlands that ended their 21-game Olympic winning streak.

So where does Cuba go from here? While it still will produce solid world-class teams, it will have to get used to occasionally losing. The Cubans’ experience in playing only against each other on the island makes them vulnerable to top minor league pitchers such as Ben Sheets and Jon Rauch.

But for the present, sports pages in Cuba focus on the victories of the women’s volleyball team and the triumph of its boxers in the Olympics. Cuban president Fidel Castro was at the Havana airport to welcome athletes returning from Sydney.

"We lost in baseball and that hurts," Castro said. "But we will return, and then we want to play a team of big leaguers, the Dream Team, to see who wins."

Castro may get his wish. When a World Cup finally gets off the ground, the Cubans might face an American team with Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez, or a Dominican team with Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa.

When that time comes, a silver medal will look very good.

Milton Jamail is the author of "Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball," published this year by Southern Illinois University Press.

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